A question of identity
What defines a Maltese? Language? Attitude? Disposition? Custom? Now that we are about to form part of the great concert of European nations, can some characteristic that distinguishes us from the rest be safely applied to us?
I am sure you will agree that for a minute island marooned in the middle of the Mediterranean we have produced and are still producing a way of life that is unique. A culture that is the product of being an all-important strategic colony of world powers for over 2,000 years and above all one which owes its very existence to actually being, en passant, a Sovereign Principality of an Order of Chivalry at its apogee.
One of the great "ifs" in our history could be "what if Charles V had not ceded Malta to the Order of St John?" From what we have been given to understand, Malta in 1530 was not exactly blooming! Being an outpost of the Siculo-Aragonese Kingdom was not a bright prospect at the time.
The Turkish menace was as real as the Fascist one in the middle of the last century. The vast Habsburg empire of which it formed part of at the time would have been able to spare very little to safeguard Malta. The odds were that before long we would have been integrated into the Arab world once more; possibly ruled by the Bey of Tunisia if we were lucky and consequently we would possibly be speaking French and Maltese/Arabic today instead of English and Maltese!
Ceding Malta to the displaced Order was one of the shrewdest moves ever made by Charles V. The very population of Malta owes its diversity to the economic boom that evolved after the Knights took the belated decision to stay here after the siege. A glance through our telephone directory proves it. Yes we are the result of a mishmash of European flotsam and jetsam that for a multitude of reasons came here and decided to stay. The same thing happened when we formed part of the British Empire. So what happened post-1964?
If one has to take a truly dispassionate view of things I am of the opinion that we really have not made such a brilliant job of ruling ourselves. Not from lack of ability mind you! The political motivations that excite the population to nationalism when most of us were happily reaping the financial and economic benefits of the British Empire that was, after all, built as much on commerce as military might, unfortunately muddied the whole concept.
The result was the long Dark Ages of Dom Mintoff's Malta that certainly did not help matters much. Our Chinese-style cultural revolution of the 1970s and 1980s put our progressive clock back by 30 years with the result that post-1987 the reaction was so violent that we overshot ourselves! We have not had the time to even ask ourselves "What is Maltese culture?"
Why are we so paranoid about foreign influences on our culture? What is there to be afraid of? Had our ancestors not been so enterprising so as to absorb the best of the foreign cultures that infiltrated our little island we would not be half as interesting as we are! The most important aspect of our culture, which we seem happily indifferent to, is our environment, be it urban or rural, which is being systematically destroyed in the name of progress!
Our Christmas lunches consist of timpana, which probably came from Sicily if the Prince of Lampedusa's description of the dinner at Donnafugata is anything to go by, turkey from England, plum pudding from England, cassatella from Palermo, stuffed dates from North Africa and possibly, if one is still alive after that, a Stilton from Fortnum and Mason's washed down with Porto from Portugal!
I know of nobody who would even dream of serving stuffat tal-fenek and gbejniet to the family on Christmas Day! There may be variations like lasagne instead of timpana and roast pork instead of turkey but the menu is still just as foreign....or is it?
We decorate our houses lavishly with Christmas trees from Scandinavia and cribs from Naples and everywhere one goes in Malta at Christmastime one is left in no doubt that the Maltese do make a great point of celebrating it with gusto!
Does all that make us un-Maltese? Does the fact that at festas today the hot dog stands enjoy a much brisker trade than the qubbajt ones make us American? The result is, in my opinion, that the Maltese is opulent, showy, and loves every opportunity to celebrate bil-kbir! Anything wrong in that?
Till we make up our minds that Maltese culture has absorbed much more than stuffat tal-fenek and actually try to define all the wonderful things we have unconsciously absorbed from other countries, like the baroque architecture from Sicily and the closed balcony from North Africa, we are in a total void about what and who we are.
Above all, there is the overriding question of language that, like the Sword of Damocles, is a great determining factor in the definition of Maltese culture. We are indeed at the crossroads. Can we afford to be xenophobic when we are just about to join the most powerful conglomeration of European nations since Charles V's empire?